This post first appeared on Educating Modern Learners

Ethics and educational technology – we don’t talk a lot about the two together, but perhaps it’s time we do. We can’t simply assume that ed-tech is good or progressive, for starters. Nor can we ignore the growing political and economic power of the ed-tech industry. Although comparisons between medicine and education aren’t always that useful, perhaps there’s something to be learned from the promises the health care profession makes … and breaks.

Educators do not take a Hippocratic Oath, although arguably they share with medical professionals a belief often mistakenly ascribed to the ancient Greek text: “First, do no harm.”

Parallels are often drawn between education and medicine – both are meant to foster well-being; both are meant to be practiced with care. And it’s quite common to lump the two together, particularly when speculating about industries poised to be “disrupted” by new technologies. But I’m not sure the comparison really works that well. (My little brother works in health care, and we do compare notes a lot about the pressures to adopt digital records and new devices, along with the promises – ah, the promises – of big data.)

Medicine involves diagnoses and cures, but we can only push the analogy to education so far. Or rather, perhaps we should pause and think about the implications if we are to view education as a “cure” or a “treatment.” Too often we do act as though school should function as some sort of prescriptive, if not preventative, service.

But without forcing the comparison between medicine and education too far, there are a number of interesting and, I’d argue, relevant points that the Hippocratic Oath makes. Here’s a modern version, written in 1964 (PDF):

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

There’s a lot for educators to ponder here, I think. There’s an assertion in the oath that medicine is an art and a science – much like education. There’s a reminder too that the focus shouldn’t be on the charts or the disease but on the human – something that echoes SLA principal Chris Lehmann’s contention that educators teach students, not subjects. There’s the reminder that there is an obligation to recognize the profession has a history and that to build upon it, we must share our knowledge with others.

Ethics and Industry Influence

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ethics and educational technology lately, wondering what sorts of professional guidelines, if not “oaths” we might need. In part, I’ve been thinking about this in light of some of the issues raised by #GamerGate -- the lack of response to the harassment campaign by many in ed-tech, as well as an ongoing concern that we might not be acting always in ways that minimize harm. How much of education technology involves control and surveillance, for example? How might we better identify the harmful side-effects of education technology?

Of course, despite the Hippocratic Oath, the medical profession certainly experiences plenty of breaches in ethics. The investigative journalism organization ProPublica has been tracking the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and health care professionals, for example, identifying payments to doctors for promotional talks, research, and consulting. It’s found over $4 billion of disclosed payments to hundreds of thousands of doctors. “Many, many health professionals have relationships with industry.”

Ethics, Industry Influence, and Ed-Tech

Clearly, the Hippocratic Oath (which is neither mandatory nor legally binding) isn’t enough to keep the powerful financial interests of “Big Pharma” out of the doctor’s office. And so I wonder, how will education fare as “Big Ed-Tech” flexes its muscles in the classroom?

What is the bargain being struck between educators who are certified by some major corporation or brand – Google Certified Educators or Apple Distinguished Educators or Edmodo Ambassadors, etc – and the “prescriptions” they make to others?

What would a professional ethics statement for ed-tech look like?

Drawing from the Hippocratic Oath, perhaps it would insist that students be recognized as humans, not as data points. It would demand a respect for student privacy. It would recognize that “the tools” are less important than compassion. It would privilege humility over techno-solutionism. It could call for more professional transparency perhaps – open doors in classrooms, open collaboration with peers, and open disclosure about relationships with industry.

Of course, the oath hasn’t saved medicine from the powerful influence of industry. It’s not enough. What can we do to make sure that education doesn’t follow that same path? Or rather, how can we recognize that, with the influence of textbook and testing companies, education is already deeply mired in industry-generated ethical quandaries, ones that should give us pause when we think about our duties to foster student health and well-being. So how can we prevent the technology sector from being the next industry to sway the direction education takes to serve its own purposes?

How do we make sure that, when it comes to all the new technologies being sold to schools, that we remember to “first, do no harm”?

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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